CU Denver Marks 40 Years with Big Changes

Four decades after its establishment as an independent institiution, CU Denver has come a long way. Today the university is in the midst of another major evolution, with its first independently owned building underway as the neighborhood-oriented master plan for the Auraria Campus becomes a reality.
The 40-year-old University of Colorado Denver has been around in one form or another for more than a century.

It was established as an extension of the Boulder campus in 1912 and officially gained independence in 1973, but's taken a full 100 years for the university to get the first new building of its very own. Under construction on Speer Boulevard, Academic Building 1 is a very visible symbol of CU Denver's latest stage of evolution.

The hard hat zone is a sign of the times, but change is hardly new to Auraria. Established in 1858 and quickly attracting 45,000 residents, it was a pioneer settlement that agreed to give up its name and merge with the mining camp called Denver on the other side of Cherry Creek in 1860. It took its name from the Latin word for the reason for its existence: gold.

The camp on the west bank of the creek became one of the oldest neighborhoods in Denver but was in decline by the time of the establishment of the Auraria Campus, more than a century after the Denver-Auraria merger.

Before CU Denver became an independent institution in 1973, the extension was outgrowing its myriad facilities. Most classrooms were in the Tramway Building in the late 1960s, now the Hotel Teatro, leading to the nickname UCLA ("University of Colorado between Lawrence and Arapahoe").

As an independent institution, CU Denver moved to its current Auraria address, a place once known as "The Bottoms," to share facilities with Metropolitan State University of Denver and Community of College of Denver. The university has come a long way in 40 years, more than doubling enrollment (from about 7,000 to more than 14,000) and more than tripling the size of the faculty (from 295 to 999) and now confers more master's degrees than any other public university in Colorado.

Today CU Denver annually contributes more than $600 million into the Denver economy. The 2004 consolidation with the Health Sciences Center, now the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, was another major milestone in its progress from extension to major research institution.

Cowtown no more
The 40-year-old University of Colorado Denver has been around in one form or another for more than a century.

CU Denver Chancellor Don Elliman says the school is in many ways parroting the broader city. "There basically aren't any world-class cities that don't have a research university near the center," he notes. "Twenty years ago, people called Denver a cowtown -- they don't say that anymore."

Alongside the changing city and campus, the university's demographics are also in flux. "Our student body has changed a lot," says Elliman. "It's starting to look like a traditional university. It uses to be older. Because of this, he adds, CU Denver "needs a campus more than it used to."

The central location is a key, Elliman adds. "That's been great for all three institutions. We were fortunate to get the neighborhood closest to downtown. It's an urban university, making use of urban amenities."

But demarcations still lurk, as recent university moves have considered this urban isolation. While better integrating the campus with downtown remains a high priority for CU Denver and numerous other stakeholders in the issue, history helps explain the separation.

Larimer Street once continued west through Speer Boulevard into a residential area and commercial district that sprung up on in the wake of the mining camp of the 1800s. This legacy was largely erased when the Auraria neighborhood was redeveloped in the early 1960s to make way for the shared campus; hundreds of families were evicted and structures demolished. Many locals were displeased with the redevelopment back then, and there's still acrimony today.

Critics say the redevelopment ended up disconnecting campus from downtown and made it an island unto itself.  In 1977, Anthropology Professor Jack Smith lamented the move, according to The Road to Independence and Beyond: Commemorating the University's 40th Anniversary, 1973–2013 on the CU Denver website: "Before Urban Renewal got hold of this part of town and turned it into the wasteland of high finance, affluence, and bourgeois decadence that it is today, it was a very alive, exciting, and in so many ways a very appealing part of the city…. I miss the contacts -- crazy though they often were -- with a neighborhood of real people."

New neighborhoods on campusToday CU Denver annually contributes more than $600 million into the Denver economy.

The neighborhood of real people is long gone, but a 2012 update to the Auraria Higher Education Center (AHEC) Master Plan included a strategy for better defined neighborhoods and independently owned facilities.

"The big benefit is creating an identity for each institution," says AHEC Campus Planner Jill Jennings Golich of the plan. "As we know, one size does not fit all."

Academic Building 1 is CU Denver's first independent facility and will serve as the center of its neighborhood. The $65 million, 146,000-square-foot structure at Larimer Street and Speer Boulevard will open in Aug. 2014.

"It's really important for the flow of the campus," says Elliman says of the building. "The campus is really in need of traditional campus amenities."

The neighborhoods plan came out of a 2012 update to the Auraria Campus master plan, says Michael Del Giudice, Director of the Office of Institutional Planning for CU Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus. "It took the original kernel of the idea of neighborhoods and expanded upon it."

Del Giudice describes a vision for "a consolidated geographic area within a shared campus," adding, "In essence, there are four neighborhoods." He says the mix of shared and dedicated facilities as "the best of both worlds" and says the campus has the highest square-foot-by-square-foot utilization of any campus in the state.

Del Giudice attributes the concept to the changing competitive landscape in higher education. "We're all vying for the best and the brightest. There's a need to create a sense of identity for students."

Connecting Auraria

"We're undertaking a master plan of our own starting in January," adds Del Giudice. "We'll be looking at ways to increase pedestrian connections across Speer Boulevard. There's tremendous movement across Speer."

And that's a good thing. More students from Auraria's three schools crossing Speer Boulevard as part of their daily routine makes for a less isolated campus. Along with the new CU Denver building, numerous projects aim to "activate" the edges of campus with new developments like MSU Denver's Student Success Building and the Community College of Denver's new Confluence building.

Connecting Auraria, a $100,000 study with both city and federal funding, is going to deliver recommendations and options to better integrate the campus with downtown and surrounding neighborhoods in spring 2014.

"The campus kind of imposed itself," says Cindy Patton, Senior Planner with the City and County of Denver. "Historically there's been a disconnect between campus and the Central Business District, and campus and Lincoln Park, and campus and the Pepsi Center and all of the parking lots there."

The proximity of I-25, Speer, and Colfax Avenue makes for some quick transitions. "You're coming from a highway environment to a downtown environment," explains Patton. 

This becomes increasingly important as the institutions outgrow Auraria. CU Denver has already moved east of Speer with its Business School building and College of Architecture and Planning as MSU Denver has expanded south of Colfax with its Hospitality Learning Center at the SpringHill Suites and the Center for Visual Art in the Art District on Santa Fe. 

It also allows for some pride of ownership, something that is facilitated by the neighborhoods plan. "Each of the three institutions has a home on each of the three adjacent arteries," says AHEC's Jennings Golich. "We can leverage that for further improvements on those major arteries."

Better pedestrian crossings "weave the fabric of the campus and these adjacent neighborhoods together," says the city's Patton. And to facilitate them, the city is in the midst of a $100,000 study dubbed "Connecting Auraria." The city is taking comments via and organizing the second public meeting on the topic in late Jan. 2014 to develop a list of possibilities.

"Our general goal is to have our project packages ranked with some premium costs by spring 2014," says Patton. They might include wider sidewalks, pavement treatments and "innovative" crossings, she adds.

AHEC's Jennings Golich says bicycle accessibility is another priority. "It's not just about getting around on campus, it's about connecting to the bike infrastructure that's nearby," she says. "There are no direct connections with the Cherry Creek Trail."

But connections come in other forms than bike lanes and pedestrian crossings -- CU Denver's most important connections with downtown are "programmatic," says Chancellor Elliman. 

"We're building programs with the downtown community, with the business community and the arts community," Elliman explains. "It's more about programs than brick and mortar."

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
Signup for Email Alerts